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When we’re angry, we lose our heads. When we’re surprised, we lose our voices. And when we suffer from migraines, we lose our words. Since the devastation of AIDS, every decade has been associated with a disease, each one defining an aesthetic as well as a society. In this short, pale book, Rachael Jablo offers a visual rhetoric of the migraine in the daily life of a photographer, where a shutter’s subtle click can echo like a bell in one’s head, and where lighting—essential to the medium—is a source of paralyzing physical and psychological pain.

The inventory of words that migraines make Jablo forget becomes a strange picture book whose definitions, printed in icy white on white pages, are difficult to decipher. The strangeness comes from the lexical and visual field that emerges. Looking at the representations associated with them, the 33 forgotten words don’t seem so random. Rather, they appear to correspond directly to symptoms of the disease.

Sharp objects are recurrent: a meat slicer, syringes, steak knives. The word “heart” is represented by a chicken cut in two lengthwise, creating identical halves with a knife sitting between them. Then there are the verbs of frustration: desire, melt, recline and wilt. The latter is illustrated by a bunch of balloons, a symbol of happiness as fleeting as the brief respite between migraines. Pills of all colors mix with food and decorations, invading the kitchen table and counter, the bathroom, the handbag, carrying away the simplest words in their rainbow.

But medicine can help, as does photography, a physically and emotionally cathartic act that allows her to compensate for this, “time lost to pain,” as exhibition curator Robert Wuilfe says, himself a migraine sufferer, as is Professor Dawn C. Buse, and both enrich this touching and educational book with their experiences. The final word in the work is “horizon,” the final image a portrait of the photographer walking down a sunny sidewalk, freed from her dark prison. With this series, Rachael Jablo is trying to understand the migraine in order to challenge it.

While the many self-portraits make this a deeply personal work, there is also an appeal to helping other victims of the world’s third most common disease. My Days of Losing Words is on display at the gallery of the University of California in Los Angeles, whose mission is to use art to teach medical students and the public to feel compassion towards victims of chronic diseases.

My days of losing words
Rachael Jablo
Editions Kehrer Verlag
96 pages
35 euros/45 US dollars

December 3, 2013 – February 19, 2014
The Gallery at the Learning Resource Center, David Geffen School of Medicine
UCLA (University of California)
700 Westwood Plaza
Los Angeles, CA